Saturday, March 21, 2009

Howard Dean: "Democrat outside looking in"

Boston Globe:
Hailed abroad, Dean not part of Obama's circle--HARROGATE, England - "I could have kissed you," Lynne Featherstone, a member of Britain's Parliament, told Howard Dean after a midday address to the Liberal Democrats' spring conference in which he explained how the Internet could be an effective tool to energize activists and enlist new supporters.

"We do all look to you as the mother of all this and then to Barack Obama as the child who prospered from it," Featherstone said, introducing Dean to the party technology board she chairs.
That embrace, which Dean greeted with an impish smirk and a flicker of eyebrows, was far warmer than anything the former Vermont governor has felt recently from his domestic allies. After November's landslide, Obama let Dean move on from his four-year chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee, and bitter rivalries with some in Obama's circle have kept the former practicing doctor out of the three top administration posts committed to changing the healthcare system.

In January, when Obama visited party headquarters to present his pick for chairman, Governor Tim Kaine of Virginia, Dean was not invited and received only a perfunctory tribute from the incoming president. Instead, Dean went to American Samoa, the last stop on a pledged tour of every state and territory as part of his "50-state strategy."

Dean's strategy was dismissed by many Democratic leaders, including then-Representative Rahm Emanuel, now Obama's chief of staff. But it clearly bore fruit for the president.

"Everybody likes to think they did it all by themselves," Dean said in an interview. "I don't believe in the great-man theory of history. You really have to see change as a continuum. It doesn't come in packets, it comes in waves."

Now, unlike virtually all the other leaders of the Democratic comeback, Dean is out of office. He is easing into an exile as a Democratic version of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent the Bush years operating as a freelance visionary and policy entrepreneur, a permanent creature of the political margins credited with having successfully plotted his party's recapture of power but not long trusted to actually wield it.

"He is what you would want in an opposition leader: someone who is feisty and speaks the truth," said Karen Hicks, a former Dean campaign aide. "Those are traits that are less complicated when you don't have to vet every sentence that is said."

Since leaving the DNC, Dean has assembled a portfolio of part-time jobs. He joined a Washington law and lobbying firm, where he will strategize on alternative energy issues; reclaimed a political action committee he founded; and is developing a network of early-childhood facilities called "baby colleges." Yet it is in places like this spa town not far from the Scottish border - where Dean visited the Liberal Democrats, first in a series of international center-left parties he intends to advise on a volunteer basis - that he retains the most urgent sense of relevance. "The best president the US never had," one Lancashire councilor wrote on Twitter.

"More than ever, there's such a spirit abroad of the genius of America being able to reinvent itself, symbolized by people like Barack Obama but also the pioneers like Howard Dean," said Jonny Oates, a conference delegate from southwest London.

Dean portrays himself as an accidental apostle for the new-style politics he now preaches abroad, with its focus on expanding party infrastructure, engaging supporters online while embracing one-time antagonists.

He knew little about online social-networking platforms until aides alerted him in 2003 to his popularity among their users. Following his 2004 presidential campaign, he questioned his overheated style - his brief rise to frontrunner was propelled by furious attacks on President Bush few other Democrats were ready to deliver - after his children told him, "Dad, you're too confrontational."

"I knew what they meant," Dean told students at Oxford. "My generation was the confrontational generation. We took on the establishment in every way."

But after his party's 2004 losses, Dean chose not to wage another outsider's campaign and instead committed himself to becoming an establishmentarian, leveraging grassroots popularity in a wide-open election for party chairman.

"I didn't think any Democrat could win unless we reorganized the party dramatically," Dean said. "There were some famous dustups between me and people who are now in the administration. I don't regret any of them."

Before the 2006 elections, Dean fought privately over resources with leading congressional Democrats, including Emanuel, while outside allies took the dispute public. Clinton strategist Paul Begala mocked the 50-state strategy as hiring "people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose." His colleague James Carville said Dean's management had been "Rumsfeldian in its incompetence."

Yet the Democrats won both houses of Congress in 2006 and expanded their majorities two years later. Obama's gains came largely in the places where Dean had identified them: among new voters and those in previously Republican areas.

"If there is anyone who is still against the 50-state strategy, I don't know who that is," Dean said.

While Dean praises Obama, it is not as a transformative figure, but as one who merely fulfilled the transformations already underway around him. Dean likes to mention repeatedly that his online strategists, now part of the Boston-based firm Blue State Digital, went to work for Obama, whose campaign he lauds not for innovation but for being the "most disciplined" ever waged by a Democrat.

The new president was a better messenger for a fresh political style, Dean concedes, since he "looks and thinks and talks like someone in the new generation" while promising an end to "30 years of anger-based politics, the Slobodan Milosevic approach to governing."

Although Dean made clear he was interested in serving in Obama's Cabinet, he acknowledged shortly after the election that internal forces - including Emanuel's appointment as chief of staff - could thwart his bid, according to one of his brothers.

"He totally got Obama's situation," said Jim Dean, who chairs Democracy for America, the political action committee that grew out of the 2004 campaign. "He understood he was not going to be entitled to anything."

Now, for the first time since he became governor in 1991, Dean is not figurehead of a state, campaign, or party. The renegade no longer has to play organization man.

"I'm not constrained by politics, and I don't have to moderate my opinions," Dean said. "I pretty much say what I like. But I've pretty much done that, anyway."

Dean is using his international podium to craft his own foreign policy. Days after the Obama administration reportedly offered to suspend its missile defense in exchange for Russian support against Iran, Dean advised caution, raising the issue of Moscow's belligerent posture toward small neighbors. "We must vigorously stand up to those that threaten emerging democracies," Dean said.

This month, Dean will travel to Brussels to address various coalitions in the European Parliament, where he plans to lay out a new development strategy for Africa inspired by the Chinese model of infrastructure investment rather than humanitarian aid.

When Dean visited Oxford Union, he instructed students not to repeat what he described as his generation's mistakes.

"Don't ever put politics aside," he said, backlit through stained glass in an unheated gothic chamber. "If you take a vacation from politics, you let other people do your talking for you."
Howie P.S.: H/t to Ben Smith.

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